Tag Archives: greenhorn

the price of a radish

How much would you charge — or pay — for a bunch of freshly picked French breakfast radishes?

Pricing produce at the farmer’s market is always a tricky endeavor.  The case of the radish, I think, exemplifies farmers’ and shoppers’ competing cost value systems. I’ve parsed out the following cost value systems below:

1.  The Economist.  According to economic theory, the value of a radish bunch is simply whatever people are willing to pay for it.  Looking back on Econ 101, the price is a graphable element that can be found at the intersection of the cost-benefit curves.  In this case, a radish does not have any intrinsic value.  If the world’s radish crop fails and a desperate consumer is willing to pay $20 per bulb, so be it; if radishes suddenly develop a strange social stigma — oh, don’t sit next to her, she’s a radish eater — and nobody wants to buy them, your perfect little bulb might be worth a fraction of a penny.  C’est la vie.

2.  The Farmer.  A farmer (or at least this farmer) tends to look at things from the growing point of view.  Am I giving you an entire plant, or simply a renewable portion of the plant?  I’m willing to charge you less for a large bunch of Swiss Chard because the plant will grow back by the next harvest time.  (While people complain about the cost of our radishes, we’ve been told that our Swiss Chard is too cheap.)  When I sell a bunch of six or seven radishes, that’s six or seven plants — plants that won’t bear me seed.  You can also look at it from the space-time continuum:  it takes a radish 3-4 weeks to come in, and a decent amount of soft-soiled space.  They also require a bit of weeding.

3.  The Concerned Consumer.  A radish could be valued based upon things like calorie count, nutritional value, freshness, taste, or growing conditions (i.e., organic).  Radishes contain as much potassium as bananas, not to mention a healthy dose of vitamin C and magnesium.  Plus, if you buy at a farmer’s market, you’re supporting a local food economy — good for your ‘food security’ in the long run.

So, what do I charge for radishes?  I started out at $1.75 for a nice-sized bunch (six big radishes, or 7-8 smaller ones).  Some customers, a few of whom clutched $4 Starbucks coffees, literally turned up their noses and rolled their eyes — a couple even picked up a bunch and then put it down, saying loudly “Oh, I thought it was bigger!” before high-tailing it away from the stand.  (Since I lie somewhere between the Concerned Consumer and the Farmer’s point of view, I was particularly aggrieved by the fact that some of these folks would unquestioningly pay $4 for a cup of coffee — which has zero nutrional value to speak of — but outwardly express disdain at my nutritious radishes.)  After a couple of weeks, we lowered our price to $1.50 per bunch, which is what they were charging at the store for considerably less fresh radishes.  Still, eyes rolled.

The last time we went to market, we dipped to $1.25, our pride considerably wounded.  I doubt you can buy a pack of gum for $1.25.

Does anyone stand up for radishes?  What’s the right pricing system for veggies?  It’s back to the drawing board for this greenhorn…


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heirloom failures

So by now you know that Emmett and I handily killed $300 worth of seeds. (Well, it was really Emmett’s doing, but solidarity, you know.) When I arrived on scene, I suggested that we plant more tomatoes — even though it was getting quite late in the season. (By that time, it was June.) I thought it would be good experience, to get ready for next year–and besides, we could dust off our reputation as from-seed tomato growers.

At this point, our reputation as from-seed tomato growers remains, um, slightly burnished.

We water them every day. They’re in 4-inch pots with organic potting mix. And while some of the starts at the farmer’s market tower 2 feet tall in pots this size, we can’t seem to get more than 2-4 leaves on our little one-inch wonders. Heck, a dozen of the pots we planted (and we planted at least 3 seeds per pot) refused to sprout any seedlings at all.

I just don’t get it. These little guys (pictured above) are one month old. We’re putting them in the ground for the heck of it, hoping for a no-frost Indian summer.

This one below–a potato-leaf variety–seems to be “thriving,” although it’s sickly compared to the plants we purchased wholesale from a local nursery earlier this summer. (Some two-week-old tomatoes we bought from the nursery were bigger than this one. Do they pump them up with nitrogen? What’s the trick here?)

Some other near-fatalities, transplanted weeks ago with 2-4 leaves, have started to grow into decent-looking plants. The black plums seem to be the most hardy of the bunch; we had considerably less luck with chocolate cherry and green zebra, two varieties we were most excited about.

[Drumroll, please!] After two months of trying, this is our most successful from-seed start:

Emmett and I have grown more traditional varieties (a la Early Girl) successfully from seed. What’s the trick to starting heirlooms? For now, it eludes us; when it comes to the farmer’s market’s most iconic produce, we clearly have some learning to do.

Now that‘s a tomato: from-the-nursery red plums that are just starting to turn.

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why farm?

I was talking to my mom on the phone today, describing The Flood. “It doesn’t sound like you’re enjoying farming,” she said.

“Oh, no,” I said. “I’m just describing the event. I don’t like waking up at 5 a.m. to a giant flood, is all.”
But then I thought about it. And on some level, I do like waking up at 5 a.m. to a giant flood. I kind of enjoy disasters, although I rarely admit it at the time. (During disasters, I prefer to swear profusely — another secret delight — and perhaps pout.)

That got me thinking about the appeal of farming. What, exactly, is the appeal of long hours in the hot sun, modest wages and the imminent threat of disaster? Is it the romance of the thing? The challenge? The simple pleasure of growing? The drama? All of the above?

In English class multiple choice questions — and essays, for that matter — the answer is typically (e), all of the above. [NB: this does not hold true for science or math; my hypothesis is that English teachers are simply too kind-hearted to throw in a red herring (e), while many math and science teachers are pure evil.] If you’re guessing that I’m more of an English teacher than a science teacher, you guessed right. Extra credit goes to those who answered “all of the above”: farming’s got back-to-the-land romance, honest physical challenge, a certain life-giving zen, and something of the theatre, too.

Still, if I had to pick one choice to defend for 5 paragraphs, I’d go with the drama. Every day on the farm is a mortal struggle: Beans v. Bugs. Lettuce v. Sun. Tomatoes v. Inexperienced Farmers. There’s the hopeful joy of a young bean rearing its head from the ground, the subsequent struggle as the young, tender leaves are attacked by diabrotica. And then hope again as the plant puts out leaf after leaf, faster than they can be eaten; and then finally sends out a climbing runner which whirls in a slow-motion dance, looking for something to grasp onto. Every vegetable’s tale is different, but common in its struggle to survive — a struggle that means a good deal to a farmer, who relies on its survival for income.

Another way to weigh drama is in its value as instant feedback. Very few jobs today permit a person to tangibly experience the error of his ways. In farming, there’s no gentle upbraid courtesy of a manager or boss. You forget to water the salad bed, you’re in deep doo-doo. All of your investment — time, energy, emotion, and money — will disappear tragically in a bunch of withered, flatlined greens. You don’t know your way around heirloom tomatoes? Don’t be surprised when (as has happened at The Patch) they end up with some weird, unidentifiable withered-leaf disease. Didn’t prepare for an invasion of flea beetles? You end up with “Swiss” bok choi.

For someone who can’t remember facts to save her life but never forgets a good story, farming offers potent narrative. It also offers an alluring combination of instant gratification — wilting greens, with a little water, perk up within minutes — and delayed gratification. Our first yellow zucchini, maybe 1/2 an inch long, appeared on a plant today — a plant that we grew from seed, transplanted, watered, and weeded.

I couldn’t be more delighted.

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table, check. umbrella, check. quarters, ones, check…

Today [June 22] was our first farmer’s market, and I’m exhausted.

We’ve been preparing for the market for the past three days. We managed to locate, borrow or create most of the necessities: a wooden sign with our farm name, paper signs identifying the veggies, a table, tablecloth, coolers, ice, baskets, chairs, umbrella. We packed everything in the Subaru the night before to make sure it all fit. (Yes, barely.) We wanted a scale, too, but local stores quoted us $300 for a certified, farmer’s-market-approved scale. ($300?! We decided to wait and keep an eye on eBay.)

Then, this morning, we rose at 6 AM. We spent two-plus hours harvesting and washing. First the radishes — the oblong, pink-and-white french breakfast ones and a traditional deep fuchsia spherical variety — which were double-washed. One bucket to get the gobs of mud off; one to make them shine. Then we moved on to the bok choi, which only took one rinse — a bath that was mostly intended to rid the greens of flea beatles. My little brother identified our bok choi as a Swiss variety. As in holey, like the cheese. (We didn’t realize the flea beetles were bad guys until it was too late… actually, we didn’t even know what to call them until we read about them on the seed packet two days ago. They’re tiny, iridescent little black beetles, and the name “flea beetle” made perfect sense. For our second round of bok choi, we’re going to try and use a row cover to confuse/deter them.)

Then we turned to the baby brassica greens that we were selling as a lettuce mix (one that could also be tossed into stir fries or soups). We snipped, soaked and, lacking a salad spinner, shook them as dry as we could before bagging them. Emmett was the official Salad Dancer, and will likely continue to salad dance until we’re really rich and can afford a gigantic, commercial-sized salad spinner — which judging by the cost of the scale will probably set us back at least $150.

Then, off to the market! It was satisfying to set up our little stand and put our hard work out there for others to enjoy. While Emmett and I were a bit embarrassed by our bug-eaten produce — the arugula and bok choi were a tad on the green lace side — many of our customers didn’t seem to mind at all. “As long as it tastes good,” one lady said. A man sympathized: “Oh, I’m in the grape business, trust me, I know how it goes.” We’re grateful for their understanding — and were thrilled when people complimented our produce or bought multiple things. Two bags of greens, a bunch of radishes, that’s almost $10 in one fell swoop! For us, that’s a dinner out — two burritos and a shared drink.

Other things of note: The radishes were a suprisingly big hit. I thought Emmett was silly to plant them, since I consider radishes to be a fairly dull affair. And to add insult to my radish injury, when we were re-reading the seed packet yesterday, we noticed that both varieties suggested that children plant them. “Fun for kids to grow! …almost disease free.” (In other words, our most successful crop so far is one that’s pretty hard to screw up.) Radishes: was it the color that attracted people? The fact that they’re so mundane, they’re rarely seen in the farmer’s market? We also put out fun radish recipes courtesy of the Radish Council, including a hot-and-sour-soup and a southwestern cobb salad. Maybe our customers were impressed by their versatility.

Did I mention I’m exhausted? My body is tired from harvesting, watering, and hauling all of the farmer’s market “stuff.” I’m a bit sunburned from several hours sitting in the half-shade of our too-small umbrella. (It was me or the salad greens, and being a true farmer I let the greens have the shade.)

Total market proceeds: $98. $9.80 went to the farmer’s market to pay for the use of the space and the organization. Another $25 went to pay our annual dues, since it was our first time at the market. Which leaves us with $63.20.

Considering that we’ve worked (between the two of us, extremely conservatively), 80 hours a week for 3 weeks, and Emmett put in a couple of 60-hour weeks before that, our earnings come to about 17 cents an hour. (And that’s not taking into account our significant start-up costs: seeds, irrigation, soil amendments, manure. But I don’t feel like going there right now, so I won’t.)

And besides, we also got one beautiful red onion, one butter crisp lettuce head, two squash seedlings, and two bowls full of lovely orchids (of a species from Madagascar) from our neighbors at the farmer’s market, so really, we’re doing pretty well.

I may be tired, but really, I feel great.

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Farming 101.

Welcome! This blog intends to give you — a person who undoubtedly eats, and maybe even grows some food yourself — a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the process of growing healthful produce. What’s it really like, in this day and age, to farm the land?

It was definitely my romantic streak that got me into this business in the first place, and I’ll bet you harbor some romantic sentiments about farms, too. Big red barns. Romps in the hay. Fields of sheep baa-ing into the morning. Hens clucking merrily as they wander around in the tall grass, trailing a dozen little fluffy chicks behind them. A big ole John Deere tractor, shiny and green, in the driveway. That sort of thing.

That was my vision, too. And then there’s the reality: early mornings, no weekends, down and dirty, nitty and gritty, besieged by plague, pestilence, drought, fire, and flood. Invasions of cucumber beetles hell-bent on eating every last seedling. Forget the big red barn barn and fields full of sheep — you’ll be cultivating whatever tiny scrap of land you can afford (or are permitted to squat on.)

This is the behind-the-scenes look at the trials and tribulations of a first-year farmer. I hope you enjoy it.

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